Isolation Leads to Desolation: The Bullying of Shouya Ishida

Leading up through Easter Sunday, Beneath the Tangles will be running a series of posts based on a theme with the hopes that it will lead our readers to consider the meaning of this week and especially of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our theme this year is loneliness.

In order to effectively bully someone, you need to render him helpless. Make him feel as if he’s alone. You do this with painful words and sometimes with violence, but you also do it by taking away anyone who might be the victim’s ally. Like wolves separating the weak from the rest of the herd, bullies isolate and then devour.

By the start of A Silent Voice, Shouya Ishida has been alone a long time. Without friends for some four or five years, he’s had to traverse the difficult terrain of schooling without comrades for hours every single day. His former friends-turned-tormentors spread the word that Shouya is a bad seed, the type of person you don’t want to hang around. The bullies succeeded long ago in isolating him and through years of doing so, they’ve nearly accomplished their goal, to destroy Shouya. And indeed, if he does go through with his plan to leap from a bridge, let there be no doubt: Shouya would not his own killer. The murder would be committed by the perpetrators who hurt, humiliated, and secluded him.

What kind of evil is at work here that would lead a person to treat another like that? I think I know, because I was a bully in middle school, too. Anger seething inside me would come out against one particular classmate, as I recruited others to join me in vicious name-calling that showed him to be different than us, less than us. Thankfully, that boy fought back and put me physically in my place. Filled with regret, I later apologized to him (It was not well-received).

In A Silent Voice, Shouya is metaphorically talked off the ledge, which happens because he starts building community again, beginning with Nagatsuka, who befriends him. As his community grows, so, too, does his self-confidence and self-esteem. Suicide is now off the table. He has people who love him and people whom he loves.

But it’s not all easy. Haunts of the past still speak to Shouya, perhaps instigated by having a couple of the bullies (or bystanders might be the more appropriate word) in the very group he’s building. Later in the film, Shouya rejects his new community, hurting each person in a stunning scene that feels like a gunman shooting down victims one by one. In two minutes, Shouya succeeds in isolating himself, as if he doesn’t know any other way to live.

And that’s a cost of a loneliness caused by bullying. The bullied sometimes neither desire it nor know how to live without it. A perpetrator’s words and action reach deep; they are not so easily swept aside.

But that doesn’t mean we stop trying. A genuine community cares for its members, stands by them when they fail, and pushes through ugliness to support them. Eventually, the same happens for Shouya, even though it takes a tragedy for that occur. His aggressive isolation is met by aggressive friendship (led, again, by Nagatsuka), as we find the old adage to be true—love is the answer. Community is key. Without it, we are left open on a plain, vulnerable to the pack of wolves that hunts us. Together, we are strong against the pack, a family that protects, loves, and even heals when injuries occur.

The cure for isolation is community, but the way there is perilous: it runs through our own misgivings and anxieties, the potential and likelihood that some will leave, and the difficulty in forming lasting bonds. But the work to get to a place of community is also community itself. And as it tends to be in the enormity of its grace, sacrifice, and tenderness, that which can chase away even the vilest of wolves and the fear they leave behind, community—love—is worth it. It is worth the cost.

A Silent Voice is now available for purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.


6 thoughts on “Isolation Leads to Desolation: The Bullying of Shouya Ishida

  1. Interesting.

    Your concept of bullies isolating their victims is intriguing to me, since I was bullied as a child, but I don’t really remember the bullies making any effort to isolate me. Of course, I was an introvert and already pretty isolated. The most noticeable aspect being that the teachers disliked me and so would not protect me unless the bullying was so blatant that they were compelled to act. (I tended to read during class, and only raise my hand when the teacher said something incorrect. I also disn’t do my homework but got straight As on all my tests.) So for me I tend to think of it more as bullies selecting isolated people as their targets, rather than bullies isolating people to make them targets.

    Yet even though I didn’t have friends, and was isolated, I never felt ostracized. I could participate in social interactions whenever it was necessary, even with the bully himself.

    I always thought of this as a noticeable difference between male bullies and female bullies.

    Among boys, bullying was always about physical violence. (I was punched, knocked on the ground, kicked, shoved in lockers, etc). It was among girls that I saw bullying was about ostracism and social isolation.

    I tended to assume that this was because male society does not put as much importance on being social integrated, while among girls being included in social life was essential. To the point that girls could end up in a bully group (where they were being bullied by their own cliche) and see that as preferable to being alone.

    Although, I have noticed a trend among younger generations to start treating boys as if they were girls, and assuming they are bullies if they call each other mean names or refuse to associate with each other. Is that because boy bullies actually are adopting female bully methods? And if so, how can those tactics actually be effective against other boys?

    I mean, I would have been happy if the bullies around me just called me mean names or ostracized me. As I neither cared what they thought, nor did I want their company.

    1. Thank for sharing! So much to think about here…

      Have you watched A Silent Voice by the way? It really demonstrates the concept of male v female bullying about which you commented.

  2. “What kind of evil is at work here that would lead a person to treat another like that? I think I know, because I was a bully in middle school, too. Anger seething inside me would come out against one particular classmate, as I recruited others to join me in vicious name-calling that showed him to be different than us, less than us.”

    This just brings up a different question: Where did that anger come from? From whenceforth springs that rage? I imagine there are many springs of hate. But in my experience, it never comes from nowhere. The strongest hatred that I ever felt made me realize that it was possible for me to become evil under the right conditions. But it emerged because I was treated like I was nothing, like I was less than, by teachers and adults. Horribly well-meaning teachers and adults, whom I knew would be lauded for abusing me. (Is the existence of children with disabilities so shameful that only angels would want to be around us? That’s certainly what mass media says.)

    1. I have a deep sense of pride—whereas there’s a foundation for you to be angry, where I’m fact, even biblically, I feel like your anger might be in righteousness, I get most angry when I feel like I’m belittled or else treated in a way that’s “less than I deserve.” It’s something I ought question more, because the idea of “deserve” is at the center of Christ’s teachings, and my response helps me understand my pride and why I need Christ, and also how evil I can become through situations where if I understood my place before God more truly, I could be humble and kind, but through which I might instead inflict evil upon others.

  3. I haven’t watched the film, but I did read the manga.

    There is actually something I would identify as different between me and the characters in A Silent Voice. I never felt guilty about being bullied.

    Ishida however does feel guilty, for the obvious reason that he is guilty of a lot, though not as solely as those around him make him out to be. I think that is why the bullying is so effective against him, because deep down he feels that he deserves it.

    Of course, Shouko also feels guilty, despite not being guilty of anything. I wonder if that might be an aspect of Japanese culture, feeling that being different and creating difficulties for others is guilt inducing, even when it is not by choice, but by chance (happening to be born deaf).

    For me, I benefited greatly for a father who could point out why I was being bullied, and how it was not my fault. For example, early in 7th grade another boy stole my clothes after gym class when I was in the middle of changing, leaving me naked. Because of my father’s instructions I could see that Chris did this to me because he was fat (about 140 lbs), and probably in fear of being ostracized himself after moving up to junior high were he would have to re-establish his social standing. Meanwhile I was the smallest boy in my grade (70 lbs) and had no friends in the class. I must have seemed like an easy and convenient target to establish himself as physically dominant (a way to turn his weight into an asset instead of detriment).

    However, since I understood all this from my previous experiences being bullied and my father pointing out the motivations behind it all, I was able to immediately take the appropriate action: Physically attacking Chris and forcibly taking back my clothing, thus quickly establishing me as a boy you should mess with, even if I was small. While this resulted in me being suspended (Chris was also skilled at fake crying to gain sympathy from teachers) and in an escalating conflict with Chris (unusual, but Chris was a coward unlike most other bullies and so responded by attempting to murder me in an ambush), once that was resolved I never had bully problems at that school the rest of the time I was there.

    Of course the bullies started back up the moment I transferred to another school and I had to go through the cycle all over again, but I was pretty well used to it by then.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your experiment with Chris—even though you described it to illustrate your point, and not for sympathy, still I feel for you. It’s difficult for children to go through that, especially when they don’t have a foundation such as that your father laid out for you.

      As for the guilt angle, I thought about that similarly while watching and immediately came to a conclusion matching one you’ve supposed—there’s something natural and expected about guilt in many East Asian cultures. As I watched, I didn’t see anything abnormal from Shouko’s and Shouya’s reactions—they’re typical of anime and also typical of what I often saw growing up.

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